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What do Oregonians 'freely associate' with party labels?

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What would you write if you were asked to record the first thing (no more than 10 words) that comes to mind when you hear the words “the media.” Or the words “big business?” Or “teachers’ unions?” Think about it. Give yourself a couple of seconds with each one.

In the world of opinion research this exercise is a form of qualitative research. It can be done through open-ended questions in surveys or written exercises in focus groups, and the results teach us not only how people feel about something, but also why they feel that way. The semantics and imagery “freely” associated with the name of an organization or individual are invaluable in formulating public relations and advertising.

Adam Davis What would we learn if Oregonians were asked to free associate with the Democratic and Republican, parties? This is exactly what DHM Research explored in a recent statewide survey of registered voters. Party officials, campaign managers, and candidates should perhaps consider what we found — the good, the bad, and the downright ugly — as an early holiday gift to help with communications going into 2016.

Starting with the Democratic party, representative associations recorded by over 600 Oregon voters included: “Least harmful,” “Liberally leaning,” “Raise minimum wage,” “Freedom,” “Spending money,” “Progressive, concerned about people of all classes,” and a little longer than 10 words, “Liberal, progressive, rational, compassionate, reasonable, compromising, team oriented, encompassing willing to grow and evolve.”

Doing a word count, the top 10 words associated with the Democratic Party were “liberal,” “progressive,” “social,” “people,” “spend,” “party,” “government,” “tax,” “support,” and “environment.” Democrats, that’s your party’s image among all voters, but what about by party registration? Are there differences in how Democrats see themselves compared to the perceptions of Republicans and non-affiliated/others?

Let’s break it down.

The top five words associated by Republicans with the Democratic Party were: “liberal,” “tax,” “spend,” “social,” and “government” compared to Democrats’ “progressive,” “liberal,” “people,” “party,” and “environment.” The top five words among non-affiliated/others — a group important to both parties in Oregon as traditional party registrations dwindle — were “liberal,” “government,” “big,” “social,” and “party.”

As for the Republican Party, a randomly selected listing of associations among all voters yields: “Most harmful,” “business for their friends,” “pro-life,” “big believers in low taxes for business,” “mainly insane,” and a couple of longer ones — “racism, for rich people, bigots, anti-gay, anti-immigrant, hypocritical, non-compromising, self-serving, religious, un-American,” and finally one also with a political scientist bent to it, “trying to reflect more true and traditional Constitutional governance such as limited role of federal government, greater state’s rights, and person freedoms, but doing a terrible job of communicating that message.”

Random selection! The top 10 words associated with the party by all voters were: “conservative,” “party,” “right,” “business,” “government,” “people,” “religious,” “rich,” “selfish,” and “big.”

There you are Republicans. As for analysis by party registration, among Democrats the top five words for the Republican Party were: “conservative, “party,” “right,” “people,” and “business,” compared to Republicans about themselves: “conservative,” “government,” “party,” “fiscal” and “responsible.” As for the Non-affiliated/Others, the top five associations were “conservative,” “business,” “right,” “party,” and “old.” That “old,” ouch.

Both parties might consider some image triage and recalibrating their communications to better connect with members of their party and Non-affiliated/Others. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are associated by Oregon voters with politics and government—not surprising since they’re both political parties and part of governance, but unfortunate in that voters feel so negatively about these items. Other negative associations these days includes “spending” and “taxes” for the Democrats and “selfish,” “rich,” and “big” for Republicans.

The parties may want to consider doing more to be associated with what Oregon voters feel is important and/or feel positive about.

Education, for instance, is a top issue that Oregon voters want their government officials to do something about. For the Democrats, “education” was word No.63 and it wasn’t even on the list for Republicans.

The environment is what Oregonians value most about living in the state, including clean air, clean water, and natural beauty. Where’s the association with the environment? For the Republicans it was No. 36 and for Democrats No.10.

Some other tidbits. “Gun” was No.29 for Democrats and No. 12 for Republicans; “women” was No. 47 for Democratic Party and No. 42 for Republicans; and “money” was a near tie — No. 14 for the Democratic Party and No. 13 for Republicans.

There it is — a look in the mirror for you party officials, campaign managers, and candidates. And hopefully food for thought for communications . . . and an early holiday gift.

Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 35 years, is a founding principal in DHM Research, an independent, non-partisan firm. Visit www.dhmresearch.com